Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NGOs lobby to stop Cambodia implementing new law

NGOs lobby to stop Cambodia implementing new law

Updated September 27, 2011 21:52:23

The Cambodian government is pushing ahead with a new law to govern thousands of local and international Non Government Organisations - NGOs - which will allow it to shut them down at will.

NGOs are lobbying the Australian government to help stop Cambodia implementing a law which they say will restrict their activities and freedom of speech.

The Cambodian government is currently targeting NGOs which have been speaking up for people being moved to make way for a railway project partly funded by Ausaid and run by the Australian company Toll Holdings.

Presenter: Zoe Daniel
Speakers:David Pred, Founder, Bridges Across Borders; Peter Bloch, Asian Development Bank; Nora Lindstrom, spokeswoman, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut; Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch
DANIEL: Back in May, residents living alongside a disused section of railway line in Phnom Penh told us how they were being treated by the Cambodian authorities if they rejected a few hundred dollars to move for its refurbishment.[Cambodian resident speaking] "No I don't accept the compensation," this woman says, "But they asked me to accept it by giving a thumb print. If I don't they will bulldoze my house. They will hire the drug user to burn my house."

PRED: Did everybody get the same message from the government?
[Cambodian residents speaking]

DANIEL: "Yes, yes, yes, we all, we all," they say. Founder of NGO Bridges Across Borders Cambodia David Pred has been working with the families being relocated to help them get a fair deal. His is one of a number of NGOs that's been advocating for those affected by the refurbishment of the railway that's being jointly funded by the Asian Development Bank and AusAID and will be run by Australian company Toll Holdings. At the time both AusAID and Toll refused to be interviewed and Peter Bloch from the Asian Development Bank refused to accept the residents' allegation of intimidation.

BLOCH: Certainly not under our project.

DANIEL: It's now emerged that in June a letter was sent by Cambodia's economy and finance minister to the prime minister requesting that punitive action be taken against Bridges Across Borders and another NGO called STT (Sahmakum Teang Tnaut) that's been advocating for residents. The letter stated that the Asian Development Bank had come under political pressure from the two organisations. "Do not allow foreign NGOs to do advocacy work. Local NGOs who do advocacy work must not have foreigners involved or interfere," the letter said. The bank's denied making a complaint to the government. But the work of STT has now been suspended, at least temporarily, because, according to the government, it incited people to oppose national development. STT spokeswoman Nora Lindstrom.

LINDSTROM: Certainly from what we have heard and seen of this letter it does seem to say that maybe the consultant has warned the government of the actions of NGOs on the railway project. So there seems to be a direct link to the ADB, yeah. And the letter itself was shown to us during a meeting at the ministry of interior and parts of it were read to us as well. It's also referenced in our suspension letter.

DANIEL: A month ago the World Bank suspended funding to Cambodia after a stoush between the government and residents over land seizures around Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh. Those people were affected both by a residential project and the railway. The World Bank suspension followed intense advocacy on behalf of the residents by STT and Bridges Across Borders among others. Now, the government's completed a third draft of its new law which NGOs say is designed to restrict their activities. Under the law registration is mandatory and there's no transparent appeals process. It could allow NGOs to be dissolved at the government's direction with no explanation and many clauses appear deliberately vague. Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch.

ROBERTSON: Well they say that they're trying to accomplish a regulatory end but it's becoming increasingly clear that this is more about restricting civil society, cracking down on civil society voices that question government policies or point out corrupt projects or land grabbing by government officials.And we think that this is all about the continuing constriction of political space in Cambodia that has accelerated since the re-election of prime minister Hun Sen in 2008.

DANIEL: It's widely believed that NGOs have been a key factor in developing Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The government's move to control them comes along with strengthened defamation laws and new restrictions on street protests. Three weeks ago police armed with AK47s dispersed a human rights training event. The explanation: that the necessary permission to hold it hadn't been obtained. NGOs have called on the Australian Government for support, particularly in light of AusAID's stake in the railway project that's caused much of the conflict. An AusAID spokesperson says the Australian Government is closely monitoring the development of the NGO law and that the Australian ambassador to Cambodia has made representations at senior levels of Cambodian government on at least seven occasions. The spokesperson says the Australian Government's view is that an active civil society, where NGOs have the right to operate freely, makes an important contribution to the development process.
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